Gun control is a subject that can become very heated and emotional quite quickly.
I think that’s a normal reaction because I believe, at the base of each side’s argument, is an intense desire to protect human life. That’s a good thing, right?
But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
So, while I give each side in this debate the benefit of the doubt, I do think an examination of the effects of public policies proves one side’s ideas to be severely flawed. And a more in-depth look at the history of gun control laws also reveals systemic racism—and what I mean by that is there are laws that were put into place with racist intentions from the very beginning and that still produce racist outcomes.
So, consider this your comprehensive go-to on the gun control debate. I’m going to break down the history of gun laws in the US, the mechanisms of firearms, the hard data on gun violence, and the impacts of public policy on all of the aforementioned throughout our history.
Hopefully, by the end of this piece, we can close the door on some very bad proposals, target the laws propping up systemic racism, and settle on gun policies that would make all of us safer and more secure in our liberties.
Biased But Not Blind
For the record, I’m not an unbiased referee. I’m a passionate defender of the Second Amendment.
I grew up around guns. I grew up being taught the significance of the right to self-defense. As a woman, I consider the right to self-defense vital and the only thing that could ever truly make me equal to a man. My first side-job in politics was for a gun-rights group in Tennessee, and in that role I was proud to help greatly expand the number of women with gun permits in the state.
But I can promise you this. I am a meticulous researcher, fair-minded, and devoted to logic and effective ideas. I never form my political opinions based on a whim but rather on where the data takes me.
And I’ve been known to change my mind on big, emotional subjects in the past when the data warranted it, like the death penalty. I’m sure I will again in the future. But on the subject of the Second Amendment and gun control, the more I’ve absorbed, the more entrenched I’ve become in my defense of gun rights. It is simply where the evidence leads.
So let’s jump in.
Before we can have a genuine, intellectually honest conversation here, we have to straighten a few things out and develop a common vernacular and a basic understanding of firearms and their mechanics.
A big thing that frustrates me in the gun control debate is that proponents of these laws often use misleading and incorrect language. If you’re a novice, you’ll probably find these terms compelling, and that’s the goal. So let’s set the record straight.
First and foremost, there is no such thing as an “assault weapon.” Walk into any gun store and ask them for one, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.
Similarly, “assault rifle” is a made-up term that traces its origins back to Adolf Hitler. He used the term for propaganda purposes in order to make his soldiers and their weapons sound tougher in the media.
In America, the term is most commonly used by left-wing politicians and the media to refer to guns like the AR-15. This has led many to believe the “AR” in AR-15 is an abbreviation for “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle.” In actuality, it merely stands for “ArmaLite Rifle,” the original manufacturer of the gun.
This gun is literally just a rifle enclosed in a black casing that makes it look sleeker and a bit tougher. But its mechanisms are nearly identical to the rifle your grandaddy probably kept in the closet. It is not a weapon of war (our soldiers would be screwed if it was), and it is not an automatic weapon.
Automatic weapons are banned (for civilians), by the way. If you’re confused about the difference between a semi-automatic weapon and an automatic weapon, let me explain.
Automatic weapons, also commonly referred to as machine guns, are weapons in which you can pull the trigger down one time, and the weapon will continue firing rounds until you release it. These kinds of guns have been banned since before I was alive. Congress passed the Firearm Owners Protection of Act of 1986 which banned the transfer and possession of automatic weapons.
What is a ‘Semi-Automatic’ Weapon?
In contrast, semi-automatic weapons are legal. This term encapsulates weapons where the mechanism reloads the chamber after each pull of the trigger. Most guns are semi-automatic weapons—from the common handgun you might carry in your purse to an AR-15. This is actually an essential component in self-defense. If you had to stop and manually reload your chamber between each shot you’d be killed before you got the chance in an actual self-defense encounter.
There are many on the Left who advocate banning “semi-automatic weapons.” They do this because they know the average American does not know the difference and because this would eliminate most common guns carried by citizens.
You’ll often see misleading numbers given around semi-automatic weapons to make these guns sound more dangerous than they are. For example, this headline on NBC News from 2018 reads, “Semi-automatic rifles kill twice as many as other guns, study finds.”
…Well, yeah, because most guns are semi-automatic weapons, so of course, more gun deaths occur as a result of this kind of weapon. This is how the media manipulates data to scare people.
Furthermore, if you actually read the article, they give their game away. In the subtitle they note, “Researchers who examined FBI data on nearly 250 ‘active shooter’ assaults also found that the chances of dying, if shot, were the same no matter the weapon.” So these guns are no more deadly or dangerous, they admit that. They’re just more commonly used because the majority of guns are semi-automatics.
Proposals targeting “assault rifles” or semi-automatic weapons are poison bills. They’re disingenuous, and they aren’t based on data. And the reality is, gun control proponents know this. They’re just strategic and they intend to move incrementally because, otherwise, their ideas are dead on arrival. The fact is, the massive gun control the Left envisions is still vastly unpopular—even among Democratic voters.
While NPR found that 86% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents were in favor of some gun control, the measures they favored looked like universal background checks, better mental health screenings, or requiring a license to own a gun. Not gun bans.
So they have to use disingenuous terminology to make it seem like their proposals are smaller reforms than they actually are.
Gun control activists began campaigning against “assault weapons” in the late 1980s after they realized that their previous campaign to get handguns banned had failed. In 1988, handgun ban activist Josh Sugarmann recommended to other gun control groups:
“Handgun restriction consistently remains a non-issue with the vast majority of legislators, the press, and public. . . . Assault weapons . . . are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. . . . Efforts to restrict assault weapons are more likely to succeed than those to restrict handguns.”
Now you at least have the foundations you need to enter the gun-control debate. So let’s run the history back next.
The Racist History of Gun Control
To truly understand the gun control movement, its goals, and its impact on society, we have to go back in US history.
Before the Civil War ended, black people were prohibited from owning guns under the Slave Codes. It was generally understood and documented that an armed population would have the ability to rise up and throw off the shackles of slavery (big theme here).
Then, in 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was added to the Constitution shortly thereafter. But, states continued to block black people from owning guns under the Black Codes. They did this by arguing that black people were not full citizens and therefore not entitled to full rights—an argument the atrocious Dred Scott Supreme Court decision upheld in 1857.
In 1865, Frederick Douglass urged federal action to stop state and local infringement of the right to arms. Until this was accomplished, Douglass argued, “the work of the abolitionists is not finished.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau Bill of 1865, Civil Rights Act of 1866, and Civil Rights Act of 1870, and the 14th Amendment (ratified in 1868) finally knocked down these racist laws and made the Second Amendment apply to all citizens.
But did the white supremacists tuck their tails between their legs and take their L from there? Come on. You know better than that.
Their next tactic to block black people from owning guns was the usage of “facially neutral” laws beginning in the 1870s. This means the laws did not specifically state their intentions of barring black people from gun ownership, but they found workarounds that targeted them nevertheless. What this looked like was business and transaction taxes on guns, meant to price out black and poor white people from owning guns. Again, we see that gun control is about population control.
In the 1900s this trend continued. They also started using things like police-issued licenses and permit laws, which allowed states to arbitrarily block certain people from exercising their Second Amendment rights. And they barred public housing residents from owning guns, which is a proposal we’ve continued to see come in and out of fashion. You know, because if you’re poor you lose your rights.
(To this day, we see permitting and licensing laws used to block certain people from many of their other rights and economic opportunities.)
Arguably during this period in our history, black people had never needed guns more. Lynchings increased drastically, and domestic terrorism against black communities was carried out by state and city governments.
Vice-president of the National Colored Press Association, John R. Mitchell, Jr., encouraged black people to buy Winchesters to protect their families. Ida B. Wells, the leading journalist opposing lynching, agreed.
In the nationally-circulated pamphlet Southern Horrors, Wells documented cases in Kentucky and Florida, “where the men armed themselves” and fended off lynch mobs.
“The lesson this teaches,” Wells wrote, “is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”
But the white racists in power were having none of it. After the thwarted lynching in Florida, their state legislature passed a new licensing bill. In regards to that law, a Florida Supreme Court Justice later explained, “the Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers” and “was never intended to apply to the white population and in practice has never been so applied.”
This is what we mean when we say “systemic racism.”
But as a result of all of this, black communities began to effectively fight back against white mobs who were attacking and lynching them.
Notable incidents include the Atlanta Massacre of 1906 when police stood idle as 23 black people were murdered over a black man swimming in “white water,” and The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which saw white people (with government approval) burn down a square mile of a prosperous district known as “Black Wall Street” where historians estimate the true death total was as high as 300. In each of these incidents, even more lives would have been lost had members of the black community not been armed and able to fight back against their attackers.
And thus began a powerful and rich history of the black community arming itself and rising up against its oppressors, many of whom were in government, in an effort that eventually gave us the civil rights movement and resulting legislation in the 1960s.
The Deacons for Defense were formed in 1965 and fought white supremacist terrorism in Louisiana and Mississippi with .38 special revolvers. When Dr. King led the “Meredith March Against Fear” for voter registration in Mississippi, they provided security. When the Klan targeted North Carolina’s Lumbee Indians in 1958 because of their “race mixing,” the Lumbee drove off the Klan in an armed confrontation, the Battle of Hayes Pond. Klan operations ceased in the region.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she became a “Second Amendment absolutist” because of her experiences growing up in Birmingham. She recalled the bombings in the summer of 1963, when her father helped guard the streets at night. Had the civil rights workers’ guns been registered, she argued, they could have been confiscated, rendering the community defenseless.
Even after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, this tradition continued. In 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was formed to challenge police brutality against the black community in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X. They organized armed citizen patrols in cities and grew to 2000 members.
This is the exact purpose of the Second Amendment—self-defense against those who wish to do you harm, and the ability to fight back and demand your rights from a government that will always seek to seize freedoms if a population is not armed.
But of course, this progress generated blowback.
In 1968, Congress passed the Gun Control Act. Robert Sherrill, a supporter, said the legislation was passed not to control guns but to control black people.
At the hearings, National Rifle Association Executive Vice-President Franklin Orth supported a ban on mail-order gun sales, stating, “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.”
(Just more proof that the NRA has always sucked and has never actually defended the Second Amendment for all Americans.)
The Gun Control Act of 1968 was amended in 1993 by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which introduced a background check requirement for prospective gun purchasers by licensed sellers and created the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to prevent firearms sales to such prohibited people.
It also created a list of categories of individuals to whom the sale of firearms is prohibited, among them those individuals who have been convicted of a felony crime. Conveniently, black people are (and have been) overly represented in our criminal justice system. They are more likely to be charged for a crime, more likely to be convicted, receive harsher sentences, and are more likely to be wrongfully convicted. To date, no state restores these rights.
No other essential right do we permanently take away from people.
Today, black people continue to be most targeted by our gun control laws, and our laws in general. Some statistics that illustrate this are that 36% of white people own a gun, compared to 24% of black people. In 2018, 56% of federal firearm offenders were black. Black Americans are more likely than any other group to be convicted of and subject to a firearms offense carrying a mandatory minimum. And, stop-and-frisk, infamous for its role in the police harassment of black Americans, was predominately employed to enforce gun control measures.
So that’s the history. And it’s horrible. Yet not only is gun control systemically racist, but it also doesn’t work. In fact, data shows the opposite.
The Data Show Gun Control Doesn’t Work
If you consume nothing but the mainstream media you likely believe that America is a death trap with a mass gunman looming around every corner. You likely believe we are “the only” country with a gun violence problem, that we have virtually no regulations on firearms, and that our gun ownership rates make us less safe.
So let’s look at the data.
Mass shootings account for only 2% of annual gun deaths in the US. And even that number is manipulated. The classifications for a “mass shooting” are pretty arbitrary, the only requirement is that a shooting involves four or more people with a motivation to kill. That would include gang shootings, murder-suicides within families, and other events that likely do not meet the image most conjure when they think of a “mass shooter.”
According to the Crime Prevention Research Center, the US makes up 1.49% of the murders by firearm worldwide, 2.20% of the attacks, and less than 1.15% of the mass public shooters. All these are much less than America’s 4.6% share of the world population. So, the US is hardly a war-torn gun violence state.
In fact, of the 97 countries where they identified mass public shootings, the US ranks 64th per capita in its rate of attacks and 65th in fatalities. According to the Center, the frequency of foreign mass public shootings since 1998 has grown 291% faster in other countries than in the US.
Other facts you should know. Only 4-5% of mass shootings involve people with severe mental illness.
And, perhaps most importantly, more than 60% of Americans who die by gun death die from suicide.
So suicide prevention is obviously where the bulk of our attention should go in this discussion. And there’s no proof gun control would make any meaningful difference in that battle. Notably, Japan has the second-highest suicide rate among industrialized nations while maintaining very strict gun controls. Handguns are banned entirely and only shotguns and air rifles are allowed.
So, mass shootings are rare in the US. But, of course, we should still care about reducing them. And one glaring factor that must be pointed out is that most of these incidents, when they do occur, take place in “gun-free” zones.
The economist John Lott provides the most genuine data on this subject because in his research he excludes incidents, like gang violence, that should not be categorized as mass shootings. Under Lott’s methodology, the Washington Post found that about 86% of mass public shootings took place in gun-free zones from 2009 to 2016.
The anti-gun group Everytown tried to claim that only 10% of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016 took place in gun-free zones. But to get that number, they excluded gun-free zones where a police officer might/could be present. An obvious attempt to skew the data. And one that actually endangers lives, because, according to the US Supreme Court, law enforcement has no duty to intervene in these incidents.
The data here is conclusive, in my opinion. Gun-free zones get people killed. When they are created by politicians or businesses they merely create sitting ducks and easy targets for madmen. An armed population is a safe population—and on this point, the date is overwhelming.
Other stubborn statistics show that as the gun ownership rate in this country has increased, gun violence has actually decreased.
Studies by both the Department of Justice and the Pew Research Center back this up. Not only do they show homicides have decreased as gun ownership increased, but suicides have as well. These studies also found that of those who committed crimes with guns, only 2% obtained the firearm through a gun show or flea market. Meanwhile, 40% obtained it from an illegal source.
All signs point to this: more guns equal less crime.
Estimates show 162,000 cases per year where someone “almost certainly would have been killed” if they “had not used a gun for protection.” Other estimates show Americans use guns in self-defense between 500,000 to 3 million times a year.
It’s relatively easy to measure the number of lives lost due to criminal gun violence. It’s harder to measure the number of lives saved by legal defensive gun use. Murders that didn’t happen don’t show up on crime statistics. This is just another example of Bastiat’s classic principle of “the seen vs. the unseen.”
How Anti-Gun Laws Actually Play Out
Continually, we see that cities and states with the strictest gun laws often see the highest rates of gun violence.
California and Illinois lead the country in mass shootings. These states notoriously have the strictest gun control laws on the books. New York, which makes it practically impossible for anyone but the rich, famous, or powerful to own a gun, has seen a 166% gun violence increase during COVID.
Proponents of these gun control measures will claim this is because people can still get firearms across state lines from more gun-friendly states. But this actually does not account for the fact that their rates of gun violence are higher than in those redder states.
They also ignore another big reality when it comes to setting public policy: product/service bans simply do not work. The market demand is stronger than a law written on a piece of paper. Whether it is drugs, abortions, or guns, people will find a way to obtain the things they want, and there’s nothing the government can do about it. When it tries, it only creates a black market, empowers criminals, and wastes our resources policing non-violent people—which ultimately allows the people actually committing violence to slip through their fingers.
So What Can Be Done to Stop Gun Violence?
It’s pretty clear that the most expedient policy change that would actually save lives would be to end all gun-free zones. While we can’t tell private businesses what to do, we can educate them. And the government should never be able to make people sitting ducks. Teachers should be able to become certified and carry.
Culturally, we need to get back to a place where the majority of people have firearms safety instruction and feel comfortable exercising their rights.
We need to repeal gun laws that intentionally block certain demographics from exercising their rights. And we need to encourage disaffected populations to arm themselves. I’ve been pleased to see some progressive groups like The Trigger Warning Queer and Trans Gun Club and the Socialist Rifle Association that have woken up to this and are focused on arming vulnerable populations.
We also need better mental health services. ACE measurement tests should be given early on to identify children and young adults who might be prone to violence, and then they should be directed to trauma-informed responses to care that address the root cause of the issue before violence is committed. We need to get rid of Certificate of Need laws that limit the number of mental healthcare beds, and remove telehealth regulations that make it harder and more expensive to obtain a specialist.
Since suicides are the leading cause of gun deaths in this country we need to also focus on expanded mental health services for adults, which look much like those proposed above.
We need to focus the resources of our justice system on actual violence interruption. This can look like ceasefire operations, which involve call-ins that target gang members and people with firearms priors or mitigate tensions. They also connect attendees to resources that help them finish their education, get jobs, and avoid gang activity. Churches and nonprofits should focus on after-school programs, gang education workshops, youth gun-violence education programs, and community events that keep kids out of trouble, connect them to mentors, and ensure they have resources for underlying issues.
We need the men in our society to rise up and start leading the younger generation. As Jordan Peterson has covered extensively, the young males in our country are not doing well. They’re falling behind academically, economically, and socially. This leads to anger and a pathway to the underground communities of the alt-right and incels that stir up division and hatred. They need to be taken down other pathways and taught how to become full, well-rounded, healthy men.
The answers to gun violence are not “common sense,” or simple. They are nuanced, messy, and likely to go against the grain for people who have an alternative agenda in this debate.
One thing is certain, our history proves that the right to self-defense is vital, and it cannot be allowed to be infringed further than it already has. But we can take steps to ensure that violence is addressed and prevented in this country. That’s where the focus should be.